Inappropriate foreign intervention condemned in both Irish and Manx abortion law reform debate

In both Ireland and the Isle of Man there is a debate underway in regard to the legalisation of abortion. There are very strong opinions held on all sides of the disussion. However, for different reasons, concerns are being raised in regard to the type of interventions that are coming from abroad and designed to impact upon the democratic decisions being made in both countries. Interestingly, those causing the consternation come from both sides of the issue.

In Britain, abortions are funded by the National Health Service while in the Isle of Man Manx women have to pay for both the procedure and their travel expenses. Under Manx law, anyone found guilty of aborting a child could face two years in prison, although no-one has ever been prosecuted. At the present time a debate is underway in Tynwald (parliament of the Isle of Man) to change this situation with pro-choice campaigners pointing out that the Isle of Man's current law is highly restrictive and forces women to travel to the UK for treatment. This discriminates against women who find themselves unable to afford the cost of a private termination.

For all its faults the Isle of Man is a democracy and decisions need to be made by the Manx people themselves. So it was with some concern that a group called Abort67 arrived on the Island claiming to be here to educate the ignorant Manx on the subject! Abort67 is a pro-life protest group in the United Kingdom known for using tactics, seemingly designed to intimidate, such as holding propaganda displays outside of abortion clinics, speaking to people going in or out of the clinics, and displaying graphic images that they say show aborted foetuses. Their intervention has not been welcomed even by many Manx pro-life supporters, and indications are that their actions have caused harm to the cause they support. 

A debate on legalising abortion is also underway in Ireland. As with the Isle of Man Irish citizens are forced to go overseas to purchase the procedure from private clinics in the United Kingdom or other countries. Foreign intervention in the debate in Ireland is, like the Isle of Man, causing some concern. The Irish Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) has recently judged that Amnesty International Ireland,  must return a €137,000 donation from billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. The money would have been used as part of Amnesty's campaign in favour of abortion law reform.  However, SIPO said the donation breached Ireland’s campaign finance laws, which prohibit foreign donors making donations to groups involved in elections, or referendums in Ireland.

Many people who are in favour of abortion law reform and believe Amnesty International may be supporting a just cause, nevertheless think that  SIPO were right in this case. They do not want to see foreign financial interference in Irish political affairs whether going toward the pro-choice or anti-choice campaign. SIPO have issued the following statement in order to clarify their decision:

The Standards in Public Office Commission has noted a number of recent stories published regarding the Commission's administration of the Electoral Act. In particular, questions have been raised regarding whether the Commission's approach to the administration of the Act's provisions regarding political donations has changed in recent months. It has not.

The Electoral Act 1997 (as amended) governs political donations, setting out obligations for registration of third parties, acceptance and disclosure thresholds and prohibiting certain types of donations. Any individual or organisation that accepts a donation over €100.00 given for political purposes is required to register as a Third Party, and is then subject to the Act's donation limits and disclosure thresholds. It is important to note that it is the intent of the giver, and not the use of the funds, that determines whether a donation is considered a political donation for the purposes of the Act.  The onus is on the third party to adhere to the obligations of the Act.

The Act also sets out prohibitions on political donations given by foreign individuals or organisations. Specifically, the Act prohibits donations from an individual other than an Irish citizen who resides outside the island of Ireland, or a donation from a body corporate or unincorporated body of persons which does not keep an office in the island of Ireland from which one or more of its principal activities is directed. The purpose of these prohibitions is to protect against interference by foreign individuals or entities in Ireland's domestic political processes, including elections and referendums. Prohibited donations must be refused or returned.

Where the Commission has information that an organisation may have received a prohibited donation, the Commission may make inquiries. If the Commission is satisfied that no evidence exists that a prohibited donation was received, the Commission will not pursue the matter further. However, if the Commission subsequently receives new or contradictory information, the Commission may review its previous decision with a view to ensuring the Act's objectives are met.

In 2016, the Commission received information that several Irish organisations had received donations from a foreign donor. At the time, the Commission made inquiries and received assurances from the recipients that the donations were not for political purposes. However, the Commission recently received new information that indicated the donations were indeed for political purposes. The Commission sought and received written confirmation from the donor that the funding was for explicitly political purposes. As it is the intent of the donor that determines whether a donation is a political donation, the funding very clearly fell within the Act's prohibitions. The Commission has issued directives to the recipients to return the prohibited donations. In so doing, the Commission has administered the Act as enacted by the Oireachtas. The Commission rejects any assertion that its actions are out of keeping with the provisions or intent of the Act, or that it has acted inconsistently.  The Commission has not changed its approach to implementing the provisions of the Act.

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